Who is the rightful owner of a song? Is it the composer, singer or the lyricist? Ilayaraja’s legal notice to S.P. Balasubramaniam barring the singer from performing any of his compositions has brought to the fore many questions related to copyright.
Ilayaraja wants prominent singers to obtain his permission before performing his compositions on stage. His claim is legally backed.
The notice came as a blow to Balasubramaniam amid a world tour marking the golden jubilee of Ilayaraja’s career in movies. He will now have to pick a fresh list of songs to enthrall his audience. All the rehearsals have come to a naught.
The reputed singer’s Facebook post informing the world that he would not perform an Ilayaraja song anymore has sparked an online debate that has mostly sought to point fingers at the legendary composer. Why would Ilayaraja claim full ownership of his compositions and ask for a share of the revenue they still generate from stage shows?
Any debate about music tends to cross over to emotional territory. However, the point raised by Ilayaraja could benefit singers and lyricists as well.
A movie song has several benefactors. It has to thank the movie director for the situation that leads to its creation. The talents of a lyricist, composer and singer come together to create the song. How can a composer claim exclusive rights to a song that was borne out of a collective.
To answer these questions, we have to understand the copyright laws.
What are copyright laws?
Copyright regimes around the world operate on similar rules.
Copyright decides who is the real owner of a creative piece. Whoever has copyright over a song commands exclusive rights to it. Anyone who wants to broadcast the song or to recreate it on stage has to obtain the permission of the copyright holder. The same rule applies to remixing, rerecording and reproducing the song.
Any such attempt would be illegal unless the prior permission from the copyright holder is secured and a royalty is given to him. Even after the death of the copyright holder, his family is entitled to the rights for another 60 years.
The Copyright Act, 1957, as amended, says a song belongs to the company, which produced the song along with the composer and the lyricist. The Supreme Court has made it clear in a judgment in 2012.
The Indian Singers’ Rights Association (ISRA) later obtained a favorable ruling in the issue but it has never really changed the copyright regime in its present form.
The Indian Performing Rights Society (IPRS) is entrusted with collecting royalty on behalf of the copyright holder and handing it over to him. Of the three claimants - the music producer, composer and lyricist - the company that produced the music gets a bigger share.
This rule has been accepted worldwide. This applies to cinema, theater, literature and other creative arts. Music is governed by as stringent rules as in publishing. Nobody bothered to follow them or enforce them. Until now.
What makes Ilayaraja unique?
Ilayaraja has secured legal rights to all the songs he composed before 2000. He claimed full ownership of those songs not as the composer, but as producer. He has produced songs under the banner of his company called Echo. The smart move came five years ago.
He then sold the rights to Malaysia-based firm Pyramid but later bought them back. These rights form the basis Ilayaraja’s current claim of ownership.
The IPRS stipulates that whenever someone performs a song on stage or remixes it or records it, he has to obtain the permission of the composer and the lyricist and pay them royalty. These rules are seldom enforced.
Ilayaraja was one of the few creators to act on their rights though he is not in full agreement with the IPRS. He has always conducted the lawsuits on his own.
Ilayaraja’s move is not likely to affect small troupes. Singers like Subramaniam who charge a bomb for stage shows will see themselves at the receiving end of Ilayaraja’s enforcement of his rights.
“This is a move by a knowledgeable person,” says lyricist Rajeev Alunkal. The lyricist may not have produced greater volumes than many of his contemporaries in Malayalam but there aren’t many who receive as much royalty as him from the IPRS. He has kept the records straight with the IPRS.
How to use the IPRS route to fortune?
Most of the composers and lyricists are members of the Mumbai-based IPRS. But many of our dear composers and lyricists have not bothered to reap the benefits of the organization.
The birth of a song is also the beginning of a financial transaction. That song may be utilized in many ways. A lot of people will benefit monetarily from it. A music composer or lyricist is not benefited from live shows unless they organize those programs.
Lyricists are perhaps the most forgotten of all creators. They can barely expect any reward for their creations except the payment received originally. So is the case with composers who are not part of stage programs.
It could be a win-win situation if the IPRS platform is used effectively and people in the music industry willingly follow the norms.
In short, Ilayaraja’s move may not be improper as the social media portrays it. He is well within his rights to claim a share of the revenue, which his compositions still draw.